Voice-Activated App Helps Home Chefs Keep Their Hands Dirty

Aug 9, 2016

Pittsburgh-based Conversant Labs has created a voice-activated app for home cooks, called Yes Chef.
Credit Virginia Alvino / 90.5 WESA

Voice-activated technologies, like the Amazon Echo speaker, are gaining popularity with people of all abilities.

But Pittsburgh-based Conversant Labs has developed an app that’s aimed at benefiting people with visual impairments. It’s called Yes, Chef! and uses voice commands to lead users through recipes.

“So, your hands are dirty they have like raw chicken, raw meat, you don’t want to have to wash your hands every time to either touch your phone and get food on your phone or on your lap top,” said founder Chris Maury.

Conversant Labs’ four employees work out of a Lawrenceville co-working space, complete with with snacks, board games and a 4-year-old dachshund mix named Chiqui. Five years ago, Maury, 29, was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder that caused him to slowly go blind.

“As my vision got worse, I started looking at the assistive technology that was out there and was really disappointed with the quality and how well they worked,” Maury said. “And I wasn’t at all confident that I could maintain my quality of life, my level of productivity with those tools, so I wanted to set out to build something better.”

Maury said the Yes, Chef! app is for everyone, but can be especially useful for people like himself, who already need technology to help them read or hear words off a screen.

The app gives a list of recipe options, ingredients and step-by-step cooking instructions. Maury said his team spent months testing Yes, Chef! in the kitchens of blind home cooks. But a lot of the core technology needed for the app didn’t really exist before they started developing it, he said.

“Historically, there have been two major hurdles to voice applications,” Maury said. “The biggest one, which we’ve recently overcome, is speech recognition. Taking the audio of your voice and turning it into text, understanding word for word what you’re saying. The challenge after that is understanding what that means.”

So, “I’m hungry for pizza,” could mean a person wants to order a pizza, or it could they’re asking the computer to find a recipe for pizza. And with that knowledge, Maury said he sees the company as more than an app creator.

“And so, rather than build these applications ourselves, we want to make it as easy as possible for others,” Maury said. “We learned a lot over the last two years, building some apps ourselves.”

Maury said he also plans to make public the technology used to create Yes, Chef!, and a previous app called Say Shopping, so that other designers and developers can easily prototype their own applications. 

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • Text-to-speech software is common in the English-speaking world, but not as much in other places.  However, developers at Carnegie Mellon University, in collaboration with the Hear2Read project, are hoping to make a difference in India with new, free, open-source apps for android devices that could help millions of visually impaired people in that country. Tamil is the first language being offered on the play store with seven other major languages spoken in India expected over the next few months. CMU said more than 62 million Indians are visually impaired and our out of five people in India speak one of the eight languages that will be offered.
  • Finnish telecom company Nokia Corp. reported Thursday a second-quarter net loss of 665 million euros, or about $738 million. The company said the loss was due to weak demand for mobile networks and the costs of integrating its acquired competitor Alcatel-Lucent. The wireless equipment maker said the loss compared with a profit of 347 million euros a year earlier, a figure that does not include Alcatel-Lucent in the accounts. When comparing like-for-like businesses, Nokia's revenue fell to 5.7 billion euros from 6.4 billion euros.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.